The first head of the Central Intelligence Agency's Osama bin Laden-hunting unit tells CBS News that closing the unit was "a mistake" and "a questionable decision."
"Bin laden remains the single most important threat to the United States, and there's no way around that fact," Michael Scheuer a CBS News terrorism analyst said on The Early Show.
It was reported by the New York Times Tuesday that the CIA has closed the unit that for a decade had the mission of hunting Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants.
The unit, known as Alec Station, was disbanded late last year and its analysts reassigned within the CIA Counterterrorist Center, the paper reported officials said.
Alec Station was named after the Scheuer's son, who was in charge of the unit at its inception in 1996.
Scheuer said bin Laden is unquestionably a threat to the United States.
"He's the one individual who the president and leaders in the ... Democratic
Party say could possibly detonate a weapon of mass destruction inside America," Scheuer told Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm. "To dismantle the unit who chases that individual and that group seems to me a questionable decision."
Intelligence officials said the realignment reflects a view that al Qaeda is no longer as hierarchical as it once was, as well as a growing concern about al Qaeda-inspired groups that have begun carrying out attacks independent of bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Scheuer said that the CIA issued a statement saying that bin Laden somehow couldn't communicate with his people anymore — but it's a statement he contests.
"We've seen just in the last couple weeks that (bin Laden) can dominate the international media whenever he wants to, and he reached out and replaced (Abu Musab al-) Zarqawi with one of his own people," Scheuer said. "So the idea that he's not in control is simply a pipe dream."
Agency officials said that tracking bin Laden and his deputies remained a high priority, and that the decision to disband the unit was not a sign that the effort had slackened.
Instead, it reflects a belief that the agency can better deal with high-level threats by focusing on regional trends rather than on specific organizations or individuals, the Times reported.
"This is an agile agency, and the decision was made to ensure greater reach and focus," CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise Dyck told the paper.
The decision to close the unit was first reported by National Public Radio, The Times said.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's prime minister said Wednesday that Osama bin Laden's whereabouts are unknown. Bin Laden and other al Qaeda and Taliban figures are believed to be at large along the porous Pakistani-Afghan frontier, but Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said such reports were speculative.
"There is speculation as to where he is, but certainly nobody has a clue," Aziz told reporters. "If they did, they would use all their resources to go after the individual and try and capture him."
Scheuer said no amount of resources should be spared in finding the terror chief.
"He is — we don't like to say it but he is — the hero of the Islamic world," Scheuer said. "He is a target against which no amount of resources should be spared."